Saturday, February 28, 2004

False Profits

The opening-weekend success of Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ has led some pundits to wonder whether Hollywood hasn't inadvertently cheated itself out of some major dough by not catering to the mores and values of red-state Christian conservatives.

As anyone remotely familiar with Christian filmmaking can tell you, it hasn't.

Here's a list of several recent, theatrically released Christian films, all of them featuring evangelical subject matter: Joshua, Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie, Omega Code, Megiddo: Omega Code 2, Time Changer, Left Behind, Gospel of John.

Some of these films are more strident, some are more easy-going; some have good production values, and others don't. But what almost all of these films have in common is that no one bothered to see them in theaters. The computer-animated Jonah brought in twenty-five million dollars -- a fairly poor showing compared to secular counterparts like Toy Story or Shrek, but a monster hit by Christian-filmmaking standards. Omega Code, which surprised everyone by breaking into the box office top ten during a particularly slow weekend in 1999, managed to gross a little over twelve million during its theatrical run. (It didn't hurt that the evangelical Trinity Broadcasting Network, which financed the film, touted it heavily during its few months of release.) But Jonah and Omega Code are exceptions to the rule. Megiddo, the sequel to Omega Code, grossed less than six million dollars at the box office even though it cost twenty-two milion to make. And most Christian films earn far less than that.

Though red-state Christians may clamor for Hollywood entertainment that reflects their values, they don't go to the cinema where their dollars can make a statement. They will, however, buy videos and DVDs, which is how most of the films listed above eventually reached their audience. Naturally, the Christian film industry confines itself for the most part to low-budget, highly profitable direct-to-video or television projects, like the ongoing Apocalypse series, the Left Behind sequels, and the cable movies that companies like Cloud Ten Pictures churn out for hungry outlets like PAX. You can find Christian DVDs on the well-stocked racks of Wal-Mart, as well as any number of Christian bookstores.

Considering the dismal receipts that most Christian films encounter during their theatrical release, it's impossible to ascribe the success of Gibson's film solely (or even primarily) to its religious subject matter. Its box office seems fueled by three things that most Christian films never have:

1. Wide release. Over four thousand prints have saturated the market from coast to coast, leaving little room for other new releases. By contrast, most Christian films are released with only a handful of theatrical prints, which trickle in and out of major markets over a period of several months. The film Gospel of John, which covers some of the same material in Gibson's film in a far more tasteful, understated, Biblically faithful manner, was released theatrically (as well as on DVD) this past November, yet hadn't found its way to typical "red states" like Arkansas and South Dakota until this month. After five months in release, Gospel of John, with about 150 prints in circulation, has taken in $3.7 million against a production cost of ten million (with its average per-screen gross varying between a paltry five hundred dollars and a more respectable few thousand). That's actually good for a religious film, though compared to Gibson's three-day take of over sixty million dollars for Passion, grosses for Gospel of John don't seem that hot.

2. Publicity. Advertisements for Gibson's film can be found on all major television, radio and newspaper outlets, as well as the usual church-related publicity. People know this film has come to a theater near them. Of the movies I've listed above, only Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie had a comparable marketing campaign (though it was almost entirely through newspapers and VeggieTales video promotions), and it's no coincidence that before Passion, Jonah was the only evangelical film from the past three decades (i.e., in the history of evangelical Christian filmmaking) to break the $20 million barrier. Again, compared to the box-office take of Gibson's vengeful Passion, VeggieTales' success is ... well, small potatoes.

3. Star-studded controversy. Passion of the Christ has stirred up several debates, mostly pertaining to the film's disturbing violence, Biblical infidelity and outright anti-Semitism -- and at the center of each one is a movie star-turned-auteur who just might be out of his mind. That last part of the equation is vital, by the way. A Christian movie from 2002, Time Changer, also presented a dogmatic religious message with alarming theocratic overtones -- namely, that Christian fundamentalism is necessary for civic virtue and social order. Time Changer is even crazier in its way than Passion, and says much more about the Far Right's true political agenda. But because no Hollywood celebrities produced, directed or starred in the film (unless you're willing to count Gavin McLeod of "The Love Boat"), its content never broke the evening news. After a year-long theatrical release, slipping through various urban markets like a thief in the night, Time Changer had taken in just over a million dollars.

Gibson's Passion is a one-off fluke, an irreproducible experiment in transforming a leaden evangelical market to box-office gold. Because the man has family connections to White supremacists, Holocaust deniers, and Catholic religious extremists, his movie about Jesus has become a lead story, even eclipsing this year's Oscar ceremony on America's weekly news shows. Curiosity-seekers, like the audience of college students with whom I saw the film, have come to peek at Gibson's bloody-minded sermonizing the way some of us would check out a two-headed cow: They want to see for themselves just what all the fuss is about. Still, they've never been interested in Christian projects before, and nothing in this movie is likely to change their minds regarding Christian filmmaking in the future.

Once the looky-loos have been satisfied and the controversy has died down, box-office receipts will dry to a trickle, and it will be up to Christian evangelicals and Catholic conservatives to keep The Passion playing in theaters. Of course, red-staters could help mainstream Hollywood see the value in Christian entertainment, by lining up to view Gibson's film next weekend when no one else will. Or better yet, they could see the film a few times over the next several weeks, as teenagers often do with films they like. I doubt Catholic and evangelical conservatives will do anything of the sort, though. They want Hollywood to reflect their moral and religious beliefs not because their patronage will be profitable, but because they believe their values are right. They'd rather threaten movie moguls with censorship than lure them with cash.

So the red-state markets of Christian conservatives, which some speculate may be lucrative and untapped, are actually neither: They're served quite well in the home media outlets they seem to prefer, and those films which reflect their values never draw crowds or make money during a theatrical release. Without a star-studded controversy to produce some first-rate ballyhoo and ramp up those opening grosses, it's very likely that the next religious film to come after Passion will flop just as dismally as the one before it did. The sorry box-office record of Christian cinema proves that Hollywood has nothing to gain by catering to this niche group.

Of course, these inconvenient facts won't stop religious conservatives from complaining -- and complaining is what these people generally do best. But in the end, if they don't see anything they like at the local dodecaplex, they really have no one to blame but themselves.

Friday, February 27, 2004

Black History: Frederick Douglass National Historic Site

We usually talk about Washington D.C. as if it were a single city, but as anyone who knows it can tell you, there are at least three different Washingtons. One is the familiar seat of government, a high-school civics theme park dominated by neoclassical buildings, museums, memorials and monuments. This is D.C. for the tourists. Another is an agglomeration of quaint, cozy, wealthy neighborhoods, where apartment buildings and row houses stand beside (or above) an expected assortment restaurants, bookstores, boutique hotels and specialty shops. This is D.C. for people who can afford it.

But few people ever see the dilapidated, crime-ridden slums that cover the remainder of the District. This is the third Washington, and it is so much larger than the other two as to surround, and perhaps nearly engulf them. It is a frightening place, even in full daylight, and it is as predominantly African-American as the other two Washingtons are White. Above all, it is poor.

Most of these neighborhoods are historically Black, but they have not always been poor. To understand why this is the case, you must understand that the District has always been a federal jurisdiction, subject to the same laws that the US government imposed on its territories. During the late nineteenth century, legal barriers to racial equality were imposed by state governments: States could legalize and enforce segregation on their own, but the federal government could not.

After the Civil War, many newly freed slaves moved to federal territories, seeking equal social and economic opportunities. For a time, while their homes remained under territorial jurisdiction, they possessed them. But when the territories became states, these Black citizens found their civil and human rights stripped away, one by one. Since the Constitution specifically dictates that the District of Columbia can never become a state, Black Americans found that they could best ensure their own human rights by staying in Uncle Sam's own backyard. Of course, at the turn of the 20th century, the federal government would claim power to enforce segregation and other repressive laws within the District itself. Woodrow Wilson's edict segregating all federal workplaces by race was especially devastating to African Americans in Washington. Black residents of D.C. were still freer and more fortunate than their Southern counterparts, but the difference was less dramatic than before. As the federal government expanded and grew more restrictive, the District itself underwent a long, slow decline.

Frederick Douglass National Historic Site is, among other things, a memorial to a time long past, when the District was a haven, not a horror, for Black Americans. Located only minutes from the Federal Triangle, in the neglected neighborhood of Anacostia, this National Park Service property occupies a small portion of Douglass's "Cedar Hill" estate, and preserves the abolitionist leader's final home. The house itself was built prior to the Civil War by a man who stipulated in a private "covenant" that his property never be sold to Blacks, Catholics or immigrants. Douglass and his first wife broke that covenant when they moved to the house in 1877, though free Blacks had been living in the vicinity since the beginning of the nineteenth century. As one might expect, Cedar Hill was built at the top of a wooded hill: Today, the US Capitol, Washington Monument, and the National Cathedral can all be seen from the front porch.

The historical site offers a fairly standard, unimaginative experience. It's divided into three parts: The first is a small visitor center, which features a wall of displays and a brief introductory film. Afterwards, there's a half-hour tour of the historic area -- usually a house -- where a guide talks about everything the film got wrong. At the end of the tour you view a few outdoor exhibits -- in this case, a reconstruction of Douglass's small outdoor study, which he called his "growlery." An average, perfunctory visit to the Douglass site lasts just over an hour.

The park's sole unique feature is its concrete-bunker visitor center, built into the side of the hill. This bunker is depressingly appropriate, given that the neighborhood around it resembles a war zone. The house, on the other hand, is an impressive, upper middle-class Victorian edifice. Douglass held a few cushy federal appointments in the District from 1877 to 1886, and it's clear that with his government job and his speaking arrangments the man was well-paid, as he should have been. The guide will mention that the film flubs a major point: It implies that Cedar Hill was a gift from the federal government, when the historical record tells us that Douglass purchased the property himself over a three-year period. The guide will add that when the house was built, it had fourteen rooms (counting hallways and closets) -- a decent-sized edifice, but far from overwhelming. When Douglass found Cedar Hill too small to accomodate his guests and relatives, he built a seven-room addition in the rear ... and again, did so mostly on his own, using a knowledge of carpentry gained from his years in slavery. (One can almost hear Douglass shout, "Take that, reparations advocates!" -- although I'm sure with his classical oratorical training he would have said it much better.)

Luckily, both the film and the house tour stress what may be the most remarkable, unconventional act of Douglass's later years -- his second marriage to Helen Pitts. Pitts was young enough to be Douglass's daughter (indeed, Douglass's eldest daughter was only a week younger than his new wife). But more importantly, she was White. At the time, many African-American leaders condemned Douglass for marrying a White woman, and of course they were not alone. Throughout the nation, the thought of a Black man eloping with a White woman could spark riots, beatings and lynchings. Within a few decades of Douglass's marriage to Pitts, several states had passed eugenics laws banning interracial marriages. In Mississippi, such unions were legally punishable by death; in many other Southern states, the partners could serve lengthy prison terms. Yet in 1958, over seventy years after Douglass married Pitts, the case of Loving v. Virginia began when a White man married a Black woman ... and their marriage was celebrated, then as before, in the District. For today's "freedom-to-marry" advocates, who see in today's same-sex marriage debate a shameful reiteration of the old interracial-marriage issue, Douglass's home should become a shrine.

I find Douglass a fascinating character, as well as a not-so-subtle rebuke of what we know (or think we know) about the history of civil liberties in America. Douglass believed that individual liberty was truly an inalienable right, which had to be claimed by force if necessary. Yet he refused to support John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry because he felt it would have no chance of success. Douglass supported efforts to nationalize civil rights for African-Americans, and in this respect he anticipated the court-centered strategy that civil-rights advocates would employ some three-quarters of a century later.

His agnostic tendencies unnerved fellow activists and abolitionists. In his earlier days he stated that, though it was very nice to give Black people religion, it was much better to give them suffrage. In his later years, the attacks on religion would become more direct: "My hope for the future of my race is further supported by the rapid decline of an emotional, shouting and thoughtless religion." He opposed African-American movement to Western territories, claiming that it dispersed their political power at precisely the moment it was most needed. He praised the industry of newly freed slaves, noting in one address that "almost the only people I saw at work [in the South] were colored people," yet saying -- in the same address -- that "Put us in Kansas or in Africa, and until we learn to save more than we spend, we are sure to sink and perish."

I find myself wondering what Douglass would say, were he to return to the old neighborhood. Surely he would deplore the arbitrary laws, covenants and regulations that have kept the District's Black neighborhoods in their sorry condition. But I suspect he would blame some of the District's inhabitants as well, for not taking steps to improve this situation on their own. He might find particular fault with those who continued to vote for mayor Marion Barry long after his political shenanigans had been exposed.

For that matter, Douglass might not have even thought very highly of the middle-class Washingtonians who toured the house with me. As I listened to their comments, I found that most of them believed that an outbuilding near the house must have housed all of Douglass's servants (for surely the house of such a great man would require many servants). Yet, as the guide informed us, this building was a caretaker's house from the 1920s, when the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs owned and maintained the property. My fellow tourists discussed the large crew Douglass must have hired to build that rear addition to his house; I suspect Douglass would have been incensed to hear his own labor so casually attributed to others. I found myself wondering what would happen if a do-it-yourself ethos, rather than the pursuit of public entitlements, were the driving force behind today's civil-rights establishment. Would the slums of Anacostia be better off if their residents were, like Douglass, to take economic prosperity into their own hands? (Yet in today's District of Columbia, where even the slightest motion can trigger an endless bureaucratic hassle, how can individuals assert this control?)

Such perilous thoughts must not be entertained long, gentle reader: Before you condemn me, notice how easily I renounce them. Douglass was a prickly character, after all, and those who lift him up may find the effort has cost at least a few drops of blood.

Thursday, February 26, 2004

Passion represents a golden outreach opportunity ... for Objectivism

Cowtown Pattie, a rootin'-tootin' Texan with a terrific blog of her own, wrote me a very flattering e-mail concerning my essay/review on Passion of the Christ:

Loved your critique of the Passion. Haven't decided if I will see it. On one hand, I would like to be able to join in conversations as an educated participator, but the thought of adding money to Gibson's bank account is another consideration, not to mention having to sit next to some fanatical Baptist in the movie house.

I can't think of a single good reason why you should see the film, unless you're a gorehound and you want to see an allegedly respectable movie make like Lucio Fulci with the blood. By now Passion has been discussed, analyzed and blogged to death, and if you're at all media-savvy, nothing in the film will come as any surprise. Watching the film with a crowd of Southern Baptists could be fun, though: Observe the horror on the more intelligent faces as people start to ask themselves, "Is this what I've believed for all these years?" (Or the more succinct Catholic version: "I ate what?")

By the way, I didn't enrich Gibson's personal coffers. Thanks to my handy-dandy movie discount card, I got a free pass to The Passion. Of course, my Catholic friend, with whom I saw the film, has yet to reimburse me for his ticket. Since I've already stolen his best one-liner, I think I'll just take the rest out in beer.

Going to the late show didn't hurt either. I saw the film with a bunch of college students, who are always eager to see what the latest fuss is about. As one of the few audience members with an "Ash Wednesday smudge" on my forehead (warning: may cause pimples), I basically found the film a libel against God. Had I seen this film a few years ago, when I was less secure of my own Christianity, I believe it would have made an atheist of me.

Some far-right churches are looking at Gibson's movie as a golden opportunity to market their sadistic faith to a wider audience. Certainly the film's thoughtless combination of "blood atonement" and fleshly mortification could help swell the ranks of the faithful for a few weeks at least. Trust Mel Gibson to put the "cult" in "cult classic."

But I think Passion of the Christ may prove an even better opportunity for anti-Christian groups, who finally have solid evidence for their claim that Christianity is a cankerous barbarism which should be plucked up, root and branch, and expelled from modern society. Objectivists in particular could plan a successful recruiting drive around Gibson's film. I can imagine them standing outside theaters, passing out leaflets and telling passers-by about a belief system that doesn't require anyone to die for anybody.

After enduring two hours of beatings, flayings and general mutilation, sensitive teenagers will be relieved to listen to any alternative -- any at all -- to the horrors of Christianity. The Randians will have to act fast, though, as I predict the film will suffer at least a 75% drop in business by next weekend.

Update (7:00 p.m.): A reader who claims that my comparison of Gibson and Fulci "got [him] thinking," notes that Passion of the Christ "plays like a really long episode of Jackass." Ouch.

Overkill: Gibson's Passion of the Christ, Exploitation Cinema and Robert Bresson

"My God," said my Catholic friend as we left the theater. "It was like an Opus Dei wet dream."

By now, half the country has seen Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ, and the other half has heard so much about it that I don't think I can add much to the discussion. Roger Ebert calls it "the most violent film I have ever seen," but I've seen at least three films that were slightly more so: Lucio Fulci's The Beyond, Sam Raimi's Evil Dead II, and Peter Jackson's Dead Alive. Admittedly, the difference is more a matter of degree than kind.

In Fulci's magnum opus, a man is dissolved in quicklime, numerous corpses are filleted and gutted, and at the end the main characters wind up in hell. In Evil Dead II, the main character cuts off his hand, a young woman nearly chokes on a flying eyeball, and a zombie corpse does a ballet dance with her own head -- and that's in addition to impalings, disembowelments and dismemberments. Jackson's Dead Alive practically marinates the screen in blood; it shows plenty of internal organs, dismemberments, sex among the undead, and a disturbing cannibal zombie baby. (Dead Alive may be the only film that has managed to turn this old gorehound's stomach.) For sheer tastelessness, though, nothing beats Raimi's original Evil Dead, in which a woman gets raped by a tree, and a reanimated corpse turns to oatmeal and food coloring before our very eyes.

These are all schlock horror movies, so they're supposed to be disgusting. None of them make claims to high art or religious profundity; indeed, their midnight-movie aesthetic has long been opposed to bastions of civility like church, family, or the critical establishment. That's why we gorehounds need a movie like Gibson's Passion of the Christ, to bring cinematic ultraviolence into the cultural mainstream. Teenagers who have never seen Paul Morrissey's Flesh for Frankenstein (a.k.a. "Liver on a Stick"), Herschel Gordon Lewis's Blood Feast or Meir Zarchi's incomparable I Spit on Your Grave, can finally rock out on the extended flagellations, crucifixions, beatings and general agony of exploitation cinema, this time with the approval of parents and church administrators.

Certainly my inner teen -- the one who gets a hard-on whenever the History Channel shows Nazi propaganda films -- loved this movie. This part of myself really enjoys onscreen violence, you see, especially when (as is the case with Nazis) it comes with at least a whiff of sexual perversity. Passion delivers the goods on that score, too, fetishizing a nearly naked male body for almost its entire two-hour-plus running time.

If Mel Gibson is to be believed, Jesus was sort of like Brad Pitt in Fight Club: He's one sexy dude even when his face gets beaten to a purple pulp. (Most men in American exploitation flicks are hotties; most men in European exploitation flicks are ... well, not.) I think the operative word to describe actor Jim Caviesel's body is "ripped," which is what happens to that body a few minutes later when the Roman soldiers drag out the cat-o'-nine-tails. Since just about everything in this movie gets fetishized in some way, it's no surprise that these implements of torture earn the camera's loving gaze as well. Passion is a perfect date movie for sadomasochists.

Alas, when it comes to theology, this film is worthless: It buys into the not-so-traditional doctrine of "blood atonement" without reflecting much upon its implications, so it's only half a level deep. Gibson's point here is that Jesus suffered an awful, long, protracted, horrible, painful death. (Then again, so did many Black slaves in the antebellum South, but you don't see anybody worshipping them ... yet.) It's never altogether clear why Jesus has to die so horribly -- there's some stuff on sin, God and salvation, and there's a weird-looking actress who shaved her eyebrows to play Satan (from a distance, she looks kind of like a guy), but the film doesn't provide much of a rationale for the events we see.

Since the historical Jesus is widely considered a great wisdom teacher, you'd think Gibson would let him explain the business to us. But sadly, Jesus doesn't get to say much in this film beside "Aaggghh!", "Yaaarrrhh!" and "Uggggh!" Because this film is made by, for and possibly about Christian believers, perhaps Gibson figures spectators don't need to know why Jesus was any more important than your average political criminal. This is Jesus, after all. You remember him, right? His death saved the world or something like that. And because he died, we can all feel really bad by going to movies like this.

Except that I, for one, didn't feel bad watching this movie -- naughty, perhaps, but not bad. True, Gibson overuses ponderous slo-mo camerawork, as if to tell us that what we're watching is extremely important, and there just may be a final exam after the end credits roll. He telegraphs every punch, swing and slice so far in advance that we feel the blow a couple of times before it hits. I also found it odd that such a vengeful, bloody-minded film would also indulge in greeting-card sentimentality with mother Mary and baby Jesus. One flashback from Mary's point of view practically infantilizes the crucified Jesus, showing that he may be Messiah to us, but to her he's still a four-year-old kid. Gibson never met a string he couldn't pull, or an emotion he wouldn't manipulate. I suppose all these things should make me feel bad, though they're far more likely to leave me feeling used.

Non-fetishists may be pleased to learn that the film isn't all rods, whips and chains. It believes in devils and demons, too. Whenever Gibson inserts various supernatural bogeymen and -women into his crucifixion narrative, Passion turns to hilarious high kitsch. One devil who jumps out of the shadows and all but shouts "Boo!" early in the film, looks rather like a bastardized Creature from the Black Lagoon. The woman who plays Satan has a couple of nice props, too, including a phallic snake that crawls from beneath her dress, and a bald, wrinkled baby she cradles in a nasty parody of Madonna and Child. (Psychoanalyzing The Passion would be another column entirely, but let's just say that Mel has gone straight into the giggleweeds here.) My favorite bit, though, is the troupe of little demon children who drive Judas to suicide, in a scene that, according to my Catholic friend, apes Sebastian Venable's untimely death in Suddenly, Last Summer. Kids can be so cruel, you know.

What was that, gentle reader? You say you don't remember reading about the demon stuff in the Gospels? Perhaps you've also forgotten that early scene when Roman soldiers (under the command of Jewish authorities) drop Jesus off a bridge, and only the chains around Christ's body stop him from hitting the ground flat. Or when Mary wipes up Jesus's blood with a fresh set of terrycloth towels provided by Pilate's wife. Or when Jesus's arm gets pulled out of its socket -- yee-ouch! Well, don't worry if you don't remember it: Your biblical literacy is not in peril. None of these events are anywhere to be found in the Good Book.

By the way, the single image of Jewish high priests laughing at the foot of the cross automatically makes Passion more anti-Semitic than the entire New Testament combined. (Correction 2/29: A loyal reader has written to inform me that this particular scene is featured, briefly, in the Gospel of Matthew, though no other gospel places Jewish leaders at the site of the crucifixion. Matthew probably embellished the account in Mark, which states that leaders made a few tasteless jokes "among themselves." Luke and John simply attribute these comments to random passers-by, without mentioning the leaders at all. Because Gibson's film makes much more of this spurious scene than even Matthew does, it's still more anti-Semitic than the New Testament itself. But the difference isn't quite as extreme as I first surmised.)

Nor do the slurs and slights stop there; Gibson loves to place lots of grotesque faces in his crowd shots, which tend to be comprised of (surprise!) Jews. The old stereotype of money-mad Semites is alive and kicking in the opening scenes; the film lets Judas and the high priests all but copulate with those thirty pieces of silver. And of course, Jews of first-century Palestine are portrayed as the sole instigators of Jesus's crucifixion (Pilate is quite sympathetic in comparison). Finally, in keeping with Gibson's long tradition of cinematic homophobia, Herod is portrayed as an effete queer surrounded by sexually ambiguous catamites. This is a hateful film, and you don't have to be Jewish to feel its sting.

Still, Passion has an undeniable exuberance: Its business is death -- and business isn't just good, it's fun. Of course, any zombie movie worth its salt can offer a similar frisson. But in this case, with Caleb Deschanel's over-filtered, white-elephant cinematography, this particular "zombie movie" wants us to know that it's chock full of Serious Artistic Intent. Desperate to escape the cinematic gutter, Passion is eternally chained to it. The culprit, I think, is Gibson's obsession with carnality, which distinguishes this film from its sandal-epic predecessors even as it reduces the man Christians deem Saviour and Lord to a hunk of quivering red meat. Under the circumstances, we may be lucky that the film doesn't devote any serious screen time to Jesus's resurrection -- the central event of the faith for most Protestants -- since under Gibson's hand it would probably look like something from Dawn of the Dead.

Gibson has created a movie about Jesus (or at least his sense of Jesus, which is even better), but the result is not to be confused with a religious film. True masters of devotional cinema -- Dreyer, Bresson, and Pasolini in particular -- create a sense of the sacred through ascetic restraint, which Gibson clearly knows little about. Robert Bresson offers an instructive comparison: Like Gibson's Passion, his Diary of a Country Priest depicts a character who undergoes a slow, painful death, yet we never see the protagonist bleeding from every pore in his body. The moment of death isn't even depicted onscreen; Bresson replaces the obvious "payoff," showing us only the shadow of a cross projected against a light background, and accompanied by the flatly intoned reading of a letter. In dying, the country curate is not reduced to meat; rather, he is elevated to spirit. His final words -- "What does it matter? All is grace" -- signify resigned triumph rather than defeat, and Bresson's simple image of a backlit cross reinforces that basic meaning.

This sense of "grace," of holiness if you will, is about as foreign to Gibson's Passion as the Aramaic and Latin the actors speak (not very well, I suspect). Still, Gibson occasionally makes a tentative approach toward transcendence, particularly in a few flashback sequences where the impressionistic imagery doesn't tell a story so much as suggest one that we already know by heart. By far the most effective flashback is told through a single, ground-level shot: In the immediate foreground, only a few inches from the camera, we see Jesus's finger (which is actually Gibson's own) tracing a line in the dirt in slow motion. In the background, out of focus but discernible nonetheless, several robed men drop their stones and walk away. A shadow lifts and a foot (also Gibson's) enters the frame: Jesus is standing. Finally, a woman enters the frame, her bruised and dirty hand reaching toward Jesus. We hear a penitent cry, and we promptly realize that we've just seen the story of "Jesus and the adulteress" -- the one that gave us the proverb about "casting the first stone" -- distilled into a single telling image. In this scene, and only in this scene, Gibson proves he's not necessarily far from the reign of God. Had he employed this approach more consistently throughout Passion, he might have created a genuine masterpiece.

As the film stands now, I can't complain too much. If I can't have cinema that touches truth, beauty or holiness, I'll gladly settle for a gory, racist splatter pic instead. Unfortunately for him, The Passion of the Christ doesn't have boobs, hot nookie, or even a decent anal rape. But the beatings and marvelous S/M fetishes fill the film's exploitation quotient all the same. I predict red-blooded American males will be too busy enjoying the bloody fun to notice that this just might be the most anti-Semitic movie to come down the pike since Die Ewige Jude.

Update (2/27): A few readers have taken objection to my criticism of the film as anti-Semitic. They don't have to take my word for it, though. In an attempt to prevent future pogroms and ethnic cleansing, the Catholic Church worked out a series of guidelines in the 1980s to remove the worst elements of anti-Semitism from the Passion Play at Oberammergau. (Of course, this was too little, too late, but at least it acknowledged a fundamental problem.) Read them here. Gibson's film violates nearly every recommendation -- with the exception of calling Jesus "Yeshua." (The film's English subtitles, however, still refer to him as "Jesus," so even this gesture fails Church muster.)

What's more, Gibson's film invents plenty of brand-new outrages against "the Jews." Those early torture scenes that leave Jesus black and blue before he even gets to Pilate are not in any of the Gospel texts. No Gospel account features Caiaphas spitting in Jesus's face. Even the Passion Play at Oberammergau, Germany, which until recently placed devil's horns on the Jewish high priests, didn't go this far.

So according to the Catholic Church, The Passion of the Christ is objectively, absolutely, and unrepentantly anti-Semitic. (Which raises the following question: Since the film's Jew-baiting runs counter to Catholic teaching, why has the Church not yet denounced it?) As Gibson said when he told reporters that his wife will be condemned to Hell for all eternity, "That is a pronouncement from the chair. I go with it."

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

On Faith

Ash Wednesday, the traditional beginning of Lent, is a good time to write about faith.

Some weeks ago, I had a not-very-productive dialogue with an Objectivist on the subject. He insisted that according to St. Paul (in Hebrews), faith is "the evidence of things not seen." Therefore, he argued, faith is irrational, immoral, evil, horrible, despicable -- and those who claim to possess faith are insane at best, and dangerous at worst. Devout followers of Ayn Rand are never at a loss for a good epithet.

Of course, I disagreed. To make a long story short, he baited me ("baiting" was his word) and I needled back; I cited philosopher David Hume's Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (an unlikely ally for my cause, as Hume was a skeptic and an atheist), and my correspondent made some objections I didn't quite understand, claiming that Hume was something of a mystic. (Most people who have actually read Hume don't make this claim, by the way.) Eventually, he denounced me as an "irrationalist" and banned me from his website in perpetuity. To my knowledge, I'm the only correspondent to be banned from his website for purely ideological reasons. All the same, I won't mention the fellow's name here, because I think he had a perfect right to act as he did, and I don't want him harrassed for it. Plus, I suspect the fellow's own faith in Rand and reason is every bit as devout, though perhaps more brittle, than my own Christian faith in God.

All the same, one should never let the pugilistic Paul have the last word on any subject, especially when it comes to faith, if only because he might not have wanted it that way. Paul studied God and faith the way other people studied law: When you read his epistles, you can see him reasoning his way through the labyrinth of faith, in order to find principles that work for other people as well as himself. All the same, his conclusions always feel provisional to me; they're more valuable as illustrations of a process, rather than as full-fledged products of their own. (Romans, however, still works astonishingly well as process and product.) It's no accident, I suspect, that these first documents of what we've come to call Christianity fall under the category of "theology": Jesus left his followers in a terrible ideological muddle, and part of the durability of the first-century "Jesus sect" is that aside from the basic message of salvation, its followers had to hash out the faith on their own. Two millennia later, we're still working at it.

There's not much I can do to define faith. Christian theologians have tried and failed for two thousand years; Jewish prophets and mythographers have done the same for at least two thousand more. It would be supreme folly to attempt success where so many better minds have failed. All the same, I won't say that faith isn't "the evidence of things not seen" -- because it clearly is, in part. But other things -- like phobias, for instance -- also serve as "evidence of things not seen." Since faith serves as a comfort to people (and a genuine comfort inasmuch as people are actually comforted), faith seems opposed to phobia. Yet I've also met persons who were afraid of their faith, so even this statement can't be entirely true across the board.

I could drop other biblical definitions as well, like Jesus's parable about the mustard seed, smallest of all seeds, that once planted overruns your field. Faith is a major subject of Jesus's teaching; it may prove the foundation for the "reign of God" he promises throughout the Gospels. English translations of Hebrew scripture describe faith as "fear of God," and thus "the beginning of wisdom" -- although in this case "awe" seems a better choice of words than "fear." I've encountered other possible definitions, too, most of which have little or nothing to do with biblical texts, but all of which somehow fall under the double rubric of "Christian faith." I've met people who regard it as a personal traveling companion: they don't go anywhere without it. I've met people for whom faith is a grain of sand, irritating and provoking our souls until we've built a pearl of great price around it. Some people see faith as a choice; other people claim it's as natural and involuntary as breathing. Some people say that faith is an engine that moves them to pursue good works; others say that their faith enables them to stay safely out of the social fray.

And that's just Christian faith: I haven't touched Buddhism, Islam, or even atheism (which may require an intensity of belief not generally to be found in any other system). So faith must be -- and do -- everything I've listed here and more. The word embraces, even transcends, the limitations and paradoxes of human experience.

My own faith is impossible to fix in a formulated phrase. It's both voluntary and involuntary; I think I can choose what to believe, but I can't choose to believe nothing. It feels like awe of God on the one hand, and an awareness of my own limitations on the other. My faith is a fairly congenial companion -- it certainly tends to calm me down whenever I work myself into a lather -- and it is basically solitary. Instead of pushing me into social or political work, my faith keeps me on the sidelines; it teaches me that the world will continue with or without me. Most of all, it reconciles me to inevitable defeat without leading me toward bitterness. Believing in a God and a Heaven -- and even more, believing that what looks like the ultimate human defeat may be a great spiritual triumph in disguise -- can be a major source of comfort when you stare death and failure in the face.

I am a Gay Christian and a human being -- and I find that the designation of "human being" contains a far more difficult and irreconcilable contradiction than "Gay Christian" ever could. But as Gay and Christian, human and being, I seem to stare death and failure in the face fairly often. Friends and relatives pass on; great works backfire; the cozy ideals I once possessed about home, church, family and country fall away one by one. Neighbors who accept me for my sexuality may attack me for my religion, and vice versa; organizations usually have the same dilemma. So for me, faith becomes the barrier I keep between myself and despair. It's a constant reminder that there's more to the world than what I myself can ever experience, that God's creation is fundamentally good, that we are made in God's image after all. Faith keeps me in love with life, and in love with life to come. Finally, it reminds me that failure is not the end of the world, but the beginning of a new world, and that there are other criteria besides worldly success to determine the worth of an individual life -- which is another comfort for me.

Ash Wednesday is the only Christian holiday I celebrate in a church, though I know others draw a very different meaning from the ceremony than I do. All the same, I allow a priest to place on my forehead the ashes of mortality -- ashes of human-ness, and therefore holiness. As for communion, the other component of my religious observances, that's a matter involving only myself and God. It is, in other words, a matter of faith -- whatever that may be.

Passion Ploy

I haven't seen Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ (or any of his other movies, for that matter), but something tells me I'm not going to like it very much. Ten-minute flagellation scenes just don't give me a hard-on anymore -- at least, not unless they include generous quantities of Crisco, fresh cucumbers, and shiny black leather. Still, a Catholic friend is planning to take me later today. Unless this film bores me as much as The Runaway Jury did, I'll write about it sometime tomorrow.

Meanwhile, to whet your appetite, I've combed My Stupid Archives for a few posts on the recent crop of Jesus flicks. I think this is what we call a "passion ploy."

It's a Wonderful Death: I've called Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ "a perverse variation on [Frank Capra's] It's a Wonderful Life." Click here to find out why.

Say Hello to Mr. Camera: Did you know that Gibson's Passion of the Christ is the second theatrical release concerning Jesus over the past year? (We're just chock full of these "fascinating historical tidbits" at My Stupid Dog.) Click here to read about Philip Saville's Gospel of John, a snoozeworthy throwback to old-school Christian filmmaking.

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

It's official: Bush hates Gay people

Now, no American who values individual liberty or states' rights can in good conscience vote for Bush. After much hemming and hawing, he has finally thrown his weight behind a Constitutional amendment that will redefine marriage and put the kibosh on civil unions once and for all. Gay Republicans -- like myself, once -- have finally seen the fruits of our labor. Meanwhile, though the mullahs of the Far Right may be satisfied for now, they're going to want more fresh meat from their president very, very soon.

You'd think Bush of all people would understand the danger of appeasing religious extremists.

Since any Constitutional amendment must have a two-thirds majority to make it out of Congress, I suspect this Federal Marriage Amendment will die ignominiously, as it deserves to. But what if it doesn't? Will we see a mass exodus of Gay people, escaping oppression and persecution in America as our immigrant forebears once escaped from Europe? And who will take in our huddled masses yearning to breathe free? Shall France lift her lamp beside the golden door?

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